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Frontal view of a carved wooden standing human figure with beautifully stylized body | Donald Ellis Gallery
Close up of face and torso of a standing wooden carved human figure | Donald Ellis Gallery
Profile view of a standing wooden human figure displaying beautifully rounded features | Donald Ellis Gallery

Carved Figure

Western Great Lakes

late 18th / early 19th century

wood, paint, dyed deer hair, hide

height: 11 ¾"

Inventory # CW3075



Christie’s, London, UK, April 26, 1977
Morrice Joy, London, UK


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2003, cover, inner cover and pgs. 22-23


Masterpieces of American Indian Art, Vincent, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, pg. 17 

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, HD 7521 - See: The Spirit Sings, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, 1987, pl. W108

Great Lakes Indian Art, Penney, Detroit Institute of Art, 1989, pg. 33

Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art, Feder, Praeger Publishers, 1971, pls. 134, and 137 (for a Potowatami “love doll”) and pls. 74 and 75 for two examples of Sioux “Tree-dweller” dolls.

Among the Anishinaabe of the Western Great Lakes, carved wood dolls and puppets played an important role in rituals related to the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Societies. The Midewiwin has been described as a set of ceremonies and ritual practices overseen by recognized priests possessing specialized knowledge of curing and malevolence (Hickerson, Harold. 1970) Herbs, medicine bundles and other objects including carved wooden dolls were used in these Midewiwin ceremonies.

While the Midewiwin society is believed to have originated among the Anishinaabe, medicine societies can also be found among the Eastern Sioux groups. Here, wooden figures typically represent the Tree Dweller, Canhotdan, a benevolent spirit approached for success in hunting. The keeper of the figure was said to have the power to make Canhotdan magically dance during rituals associated with the Medicine Dance Society (Ewers, John. 1986). It has been suggested that the ritual use of Tree Dweller figures is in fact the westernmost extension of Midewiwin influence (Skinner, Alanson. 1925).

Among the Anishinaabe, figures such as these were used exclusively in Midewiwin Society rituals. As proof of their owner’s magical powers, the puppets we made to “move by themselves” (Hoffman, W.J. 1891), or slowly “emerge from a bag by themselves” (Densmore, Francis. 1932). Several of the figures that have survived exhibit a hollowed out cavity in the chest used to contain herbal potions to aid in the curing of sickness, the most important role of a Midewiwin Society practitioner.

This important figure is one of only five known featuring a cavity, and the only example with the cavity located in the back rather than chest area. A drilled cylindrical channel runs from the top of the cavity to the top of the head through which smoke might have risen in ritual uses. The superbly refined lines and proportions of the head and face are highlighted by traces of red pigment in the eye, ear and neck areas, likely replicating body painting techniques that a Midewiwin practitioner might have employed during curing performances. The significance of the dyed deer hair headdress is unknown, however it may relate to the red pigmentation seen in the facial and neck areas.

Surviving examples of 18th century wooden sculpture from the Eastern Woodlands are rare. The subtlety of expression, together with the balanced composition create an overwhelming sense of monumentality, and place this remarkable figure among the masterpieces of Native American art.

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